Resuming after a three weeks’ hiatus, the Bemba trial this week heard the testimony of two witnesses. Both witnesses worked closely with the late president of the Central African Republic (CAR), Ange-Félix Patassé, and testified that war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba did not command his troops deployed in the CAR conflict. Rather, they said, it was local commanders loyal to Mr. Patassé who commanded the foreign troops.
A former member of Mr. Patassé’s presidential guard, who testified under the pseudonym ‘Witness D04-50,’ said the accused’s militia fell under the command of Central African generals. He also said he did not see any members of Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) committing any crimes.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness D04-07’ recounted how Mr. Bemba visited his troops on the frontline and told them to “respect” the authority of the local generals. “He gestured to General Bombayake. Colonel Lengbe was beside him,” said the witness.
Ferdinand Bombayake was the commander of the Central African presidential guard while Thierry Lengbe commanded the country’s center for military operations. The two witnesses who testified this week named General Bombayake, Colonel Lengbe, and General André Mazzi – the chief of staff of the Central African army – as the ones who commanded Mr. Bemba’s troops during the conflict.
Both of this week’s witnesses testified with their images and voices distorted in portions of their testimony that were re-transmitted to the public. Most of their evidence was heard in closed session.
‘Witness D04-50’ recalled the arrival of Mr. Bemba’s troops into the CAR capital Bangui on October 30, 2002. He said the presidential guard, also known as USP, provided the Congolese troops with uniforms. Thereafter, the MLC, the presidential guard, as well as other forces loyal to President Patassé launched an offensive against the insurgents.
He also stated that the presidential guard led the MLC troops during operations because the foreign troops “did not know the terrain properly.” He said the USP also worked in collaboration with the country’s regular army known as Forces Armées Centrafricaines (FACA).
“Who commanded these forces?” asked Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a lawyer representing victims in the trial.
The witness answered, “General Mazzi and Colonel Lengbe of the FACA.”
In October 2002, Mr. Bemba, the MLC commander-in-chief, sent his troops to the neighboring country to assist Patassé’s loyalist forces beat back a rebellion led by sacked army chief François Bozizé. The rebels captured power in March 2003. Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly failing to control or punish his troops as they allegedly raped, killed, and looted against civilians during their five month participation in the conflict country.
However, ‘Witness D04-57’ defended Mr. Bemba’s fighters, saying they protected civilians who were displaced during a 2001 coup attempt. He said Central African civilians were happy with the protection they received from the accused’s fighters. Furthermore, ‘Witness D04-57’ stated that General Bozizé, the current president of the CAR who overthrew Mr. Patassé in March 2003, had Congolese nationals in his rebel force.
The witness did not say what position he held but indicated that he was a senior member of the Patassé regime. “The president sent me with a helicopter, and we overflew the area and saw people in Ouango, Zongo, and others were in the mountains. They were happy; they were satisfied,” the witness said of civilians who were under the protection of MLC troops. This was during a coup attempt against Mr. Patassé in 2001.
He also testified that on a visit to the conflict country, Mr. Bemba ordered his fighters to obey the authority of those commanders. He said General Bombayake and Colonel Lengbe were present when Mr. Bemba addressed his soldiers.
This witness also stated that among the ranks of the Bozizé fighters were numerous deserters from the CAR army, “mercenaries from Chad,” and “some Congolese who came to Bangui,” who the witness said Bozizé had recruited.
Defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba asked what language the different soldiers fighting with General Bozizé spoke.
“They spoke Sango some of them. Other spoke the Chadian language, others spoke Lingala,” the witness replied. Sango is a Central African language widely spoken in Bangui, while Lingala is native to the Democratic Republic of Congo where it is predominantly spoken.
The witness also said General Bozizé recruited Congolese nationals resident in Bangui well before the arrival of Mr. Bemba’s troops into that country. “I am not able to give you an exact date, but on the basis of intelligence I received, Bozizé was in the process of recruiting young Congolese shoe shiners well ahead of that day,” said ‘Witness D04-57,’ referring to October 25, 2002.
The evidence by ‘Witness D04-57’ casts doubt on the identity of the perpetrators of the crimes, as he stated that among the ranks of the Bozizé rebels there were Lingala speakers. Previous witnesses have said the perpetrators spoke Lingala, which marked them out as members of Mr. Bemba’s militia.
Furthermore, the witness said Mr. Bemba’s fighters arrived on Central African territory at the earliest on October 30, 2002, five days after the Bozizé rebels had occupied several Bangui suburbs. Prosecutors called witnesses who testified to crimes being committed in these areas prior to this date and claimed the perpetrators were MLC.
Among the areas where prosecutors charge the crimes took place are PK 12, Boy-Rabé, Fou, Mongoumba, Bossangoa, Damara, Bossembélé, Sibut, Bozoum, and Bossemptele, but court heard this week that many of these towns were under the control of Bozize rebels during the last week of October 2002.
‘Witness D04-57’ said he learned about the arrival of the Congolese troops over a walkie-talkie, and he traveled to the riverbank to receive them. Weapons, uniform, ammunition, and the soldiers’ allowance for buying food and other necessities were provided to the foreign troops by the CAR army. He also said Mr. Bemba’s commanders in the conflict country were provided with Thuraya satellite phones that they used to communicate with the three Central African commanders they reported to.
The trial continues on Monday October 22, 2012.